Friday, April 10, 2009

Liverpool and Man United: The Kind of Weekend Where Leagues Are Won and Lost

With seven games to go, the Premier League title chase hangs on a knife edge. Liverpool and Manchester United are still neck and neck after battling it out with each other since August, with Chelsea still breathing down their necks lest someone capitulate in the final straight.

The Reds and the Red Devils both suffered midweek in the Champions League after surprising results and even more surprising performances. Liverpool were completely outplayed by Chelsea in a match that bore remarkable resemblance to their famous 4-1 win over the Red Devils at Old Trafford.

While Alex Ferguson has found the running tough since that devastating defeat and his team have struggled over the following three games. The team that were once cantering to the title have since had their confidence sapped by a successive defeat to Fulham and a shaky win over free-falling Aston Villa.

Add Wednesday's shock 2-2 draw against Champions League outsiders Porto, and Manchester United are a side who are straining to hold onto their title. Complacency is the key, United went into the Liverpool match thinking the league was over regardless of the result.

But they failed to grasp what was most important. The result was not the most important thing from the Liverpool match, the manner of the performance was. Had United been barely beaten, then confidence would have remained high and they would have approached the match in Craven Cottage in a different vein.

The result against Fulham set the tone for the nervous approach against Aston Villa and only a last half an hour revival sparked by the introduction of a teenager did Manchester United come back into the game.

The game was over when Fergie slipped Macheda onto the pitch and the change in formation that resulted in his introduction threw the match on its head and gave United the 3-2 win.

United's fans breathed a hugh sigh of relief, they had gotten over their bad patch. All was forgiven and all was forgotten. Then unfancied Porto came to town. Players like Vidic, Evra, and Evans, who have all been excellent this year might as well have gone home.

Their abject performances nearly threw the tie away. Only Wayne Rooney came out of the tie with any credit to his name, as the malaise looks deeper set than had been previously predicted.

The obvious factor that United played against Porto on Tuesday less than 48 hours after the Villa match can be pointed at, but it in not responsible for the manner of the poor performances.

As with any slump there are a million little factors. The players thinking the league was all over, Ronaldo and Berbatov's indifference all season, Fergie pushing Tevez to one side, Fergie making tactical errors, the lack of bite in midfield, complacency.

How do you exorcise this spirit so late in the season?

It all comes down to building confidence on the training pitch. Keeping the players away from the media. Take a boxers approach and immerse yourself and for the next while only listen to positive opinions.

Easier said than done.

United have almost the perfect opponents on Saturday. Sunderland were poor when Roy Keane was there and have steadily gotten worse. The fanbase and good humour he added to the ground has all but evaporated as fans leave the sinking ship.

Ricky Sbragia has found the going tough of late and the team that were once firmly planted in mid-table now find themselves part of a four way relegation battle with Newcastle, Portsmouth, and Hull.

The trip to Wearside will not be an easy one. It is always tough to go and when all things are considered the Red Devils should be too strong for the Black Cats.

But the fact is that the game will be United's third match in six days. And that it will possibly be their furthest away trip of the final league run in will be playing on Fergie's mind.

Sunderland are in a dog fight and need points badly and it is always easier for lesser players to up their game against United than it is to up their game against other teams.

It will be a defining game. Win and some of the pressure will lessen, lose and it will become unbearable.

The pressure on United as they chase four trophies is immense, and expect Ferguson to field a weakened team against Everton next week. Sir Alex will put out a team to win but I have a feeling it will be a match that he won't exactly mind losing as he looks to relieve the pressure his team are under.

Liverpool are now entering the place where Manchester United have found themselves for the past two weeks. After a seemingly invincible run they met a team who completely outplayed them to such an extent that it must have battered their confidence.

Chelsea did to Liverpool what Liverpool had done to United, and with that initial confidence sapping win began the Red Devils' poor form. So now Rafael Benitez, who will be all to aware of the fragile ego of a footballer, will have to go to work.

Their tactical genius of a manager now has to show the social side of his management skills, and if his team are to come back from this dip then they will have to equal his technical skills.

Never one to give compliments too freely, Rafael Benitez now finds himself in a place where he does not have the time that a good run of results may bring. He has to embrace his team and lift them, let them know that their destiny lies in their own hands and that only they themselves can lift the team.

The true skill of a great manager—making your players believe when no one else does.

He can even work the Champions League defeat to his advantage. Show them what complacency can bring, and that they are too good and have fought too hard to be undone by just one game.

He could lift the pressure of chasing two trophies by making it known now, that next week's match against Chelsea will be meaningless and that a reserve side will play. This could re-focus his players attention on the most coveted prize, the league title.

The fact remains that it will take seven league games and United to lose two to win the league and that it will take four matches and Chelsea and Barcelona to have off days for Liverpool to even reach the final.

With Liverpool playing catch up against a stuttering Manchester United team, the Premier League may be the best place to retain focus.

Blackburn will not be easy victims though. Since Sam Allardyce took over from Paul Ince, Rovers have steadily clambered away from the relegation zone.

Their current form places them as the seventh best team in the league and after last week's smash and grab against a Spurs side who dominated for 83 minutes they will be full of confidence as they head to Anfield.

Liverpool conceded two sloppy goals from corners against Chelsea and every team that Big Sam has ever put together relies heavily on their goals from set pieces.

They are a big physical team and in Aaron Mokoena they have one of the toughest and dirtiest midfielders in the league. They won't be intimidated by Liverpool, Sam will make sure of that.

Rafa will most probably bring Javier Mascherano back into the team in place of Lucas. The young Brazilian has been a disaster all season barring a shock performance against Manchester United and he is now rated as one of the worst signings the club has ever made.

Part of the problem at Liverpool is the lack of any real cover at central midfield. Benitez obviously does not trust Steven Gerrard or any of the young players who are coming through so it looks to be a position that he will strengthen during the summer.

The match against Blackburn has the added complication that Gerrard will almost definitely miss the game through a groin injury that he picked up against Chelsea.

If the inspirational skipper does miss the game Rafa has the headache of who to play in the support role. Robbie Keane is no longer with the club, so Rafa will most likely look to either Yossi Benayoun or Ryan Babel.

Liverpool have been quite conservative in their play this season but in the past three weeks Rafael Benitez seems to have taken their shackles off.

Over that time they have hammered Real Madrid, Manchester United, Aston Villa, and Fulham, and their attacking play has been a breath of fresh air to a club where the manager's reign had actually come under intense scrutiny.

How Liverpool approach the game against Blackburn is anyone's guess but if the manager wants to retain the impetus that his team had built over the last month then he will keep their attacking style, with or without Gerrard.

These games against Blackburn and Sunderland look like nothing games on paper. Two poor sides who should be easily swept aside, but matches are never won on paper.

They are often won in the dressing room before a ball is even kicked, and now the two rival managers will have an uphill task to lift their teams in this, the most decisive of weeks.

This is the week where leagues are won and lost, where legends are born. Victories over rivals count for nothing in the great scheme of things if the managers and players cannot rise their game for matches against lesser sides.

And whoever wins this weekend, the result will go a long way to determining the destination of the league title.

twitter / WillieGannon